Washington Abuzz with Arrival of Snow Leopard Cub
WASHINGTON Washington diplomatic circles were abuzz Tuesday with the imminent arrival of a new foreign dignitary -- an orphaned snow leopard from Pakistan.
One of only a few thousand of the endangered species left in the wild, the 13-month-old cub was rescued by a shepherd in northern Pakistan a year ago after its mother was killed.
It is due to arrive at New York's Bronx Zoo Wednesday after months of diplomatic effort.
"U.S. diplomacy has many facets and protecting endangered species is one of them," the State Department said in one of several statements on the cub. "The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad has worked tirelessly on this since news of the orphaned cub was first received."
The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Ryan Crocker, hosted a special ceremony in an Islamabad luxury hotel Tuesday to send off the cub on his long cargo flight to New York.
"I would also like to commend the shepherd who found the orphaned cub and saved his life by taking him in and giving him shelter. It is because of that shepherd's compassion and foresight that we are here today," Crocker said in a speech.
The shepherd who found the cub in Naltar Valley in Pakistan's Karakoram Mountains sheltered him in his home and later his grain shed before he contacted the World Wildlife Fund. That set off a long string of diplomatic exchanges to find the young cat an appropriate home.
Snow leopards, which are hunted for their fur, are some of the most endangered mammals in the world. Only between 3,500 and 7,000 are estimated to be left in their natural habitat in the mountains of Central Asia.
Wild snow leopard cubs usually remain with their mothers until they are 18 to 22 months old. Since this cub was orphaned when he was just a few weeks old, he never learned how to hunt and will therefore never be released into the wild.
The plan is for the cat to stay at the Bronx Zoo until a facility that can care for snow leopards can be built in Pakistan, with the help of the U.S. government and the Wildlife Conservation Society, or WSC, which runs the Bronx Zoo.
"The nice thing about the cat coming to the Bronx Zoo is that we have two females of the about the same age that would be potential mates," Jim Breheny, the zoo's director, told Reuters on the telephone.
The Bronx Zoo, which began exhibiting leopards in 1903 and bred its first snow leopard in 1966, is one of the few centers in the world participating in the World Conservation Union Species Survival Plan breeding program for snow leopards.
But even for the zoo, the world leader in breeding and caring for snow leopards, this cub is a rare, prized gift.
"His genes are wild and not represented in the gene pool," Breheny said.
The cat, who now weighs 60 pounds will be bred when he is about 3 years old in the hopes of widening the gene pool of snow leopards bred in captivity.
"He's an unusual, very exciting cat to have," Dr. Steven Sanderson, president and CEO of the WSC, told Reuters. "What is really exciting about this animal is that it comes from the wild. We don't ever take snow leopards from the wild any more, except in extraordinary circumstances like this one."
He said the cub would initially be placed in quarantine for about 30 days before being slowly introduced to the zoo's other 12 snow leopards -- four males and 8 females -- who all live together. In the fall, the cub will make his public debut.